by Kathy Fagan

The last time I touched my father I cut his coarse gray hair and trimmed his fingernails, grown ragged in lockdown. We were not permitted indoor visits, but I could take him out of the facility for a medical appointment provided I was screened for covid and we wore masks. That summer day I drove him to the V.A. clinic and back. Then, in a wooded area of the property, I settled him on a bench. His hair floated in silver sheaves onto the pine needles. Holding his hands, I massaged his fingers, reminding him over and over to release his grip on mine so I could position the clippers. My father is severely hearing impaired; that and dementia have taken most of his language skills—a nap has become a second sleep—but in daylight hours he still remembers his children’s names and his own. Other than his birthplace, he cannot recall where he’s lived or traveled, or what happened to my mother. After her, he lost baseball, then politics—his primary passions. What’s left to him is praying and photographing the sky, clouds the subject of many of our conversations. But in this second lockdown, with winter coming on, his world has become even smaller. I don’t know how long his hair has grown because he keeps his head covered, day and night, in a woolly night cap. His fingernails, as I see in our precarious video calls, are claw-like again, and he is not changing his clothes. That summer day, the clouds, like his hair, moved slowly and softly across the planet, while we talked about nothing and held hands. Animated and chatty, he came back to me a little in that moment, or rather, back to himself. He didn’t know any more than he knows now why we groomed him in secret, but I could tell it thrilled us equally, a joyous pair busy at their sylvan ritual. The pandemic exists only as a confusing set of circumstances for my dad and so many like him: confined to his room, taking meals alone, seeing no one but the courageous, masked staff member who delivers food and meds. He turns 89 in two days and I will not be allowed to visit. Luckily, he won’t remember it’s a special day. He won’t know, when he receives the vaccine—soon, soon—how, once again, his life will be altered. None of us does. But we will be restored to one another, some of us, for a little while at least, grateful for the chance to touch the loved ones still here with us.

Originally published in Passages North. Click here to read Kathy Fagan’s reflection on writing about caregiving.

Kathy Fagan’s sixth poetry collection is Bad Hobby (Milkweed Editions, 2022), available both in print and audio. Her previous book, Sycamore (Milkweed, 2017), was a finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Award. She’s been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and her work has appeared in venues such as The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, Kenyon Review, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and Best American Poetry. Fagan co-founded the MFA Program in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University, where she teaches poetry and co-edits The Journal/OSU Press Wheeler Poetry Prize Series.

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